The advancing monsoon and the increasing water level in Ganga in Uttar Pradesh's Prayagraj town have thrown up a challenge for authorities: Dealing with the mass graves in the sandbanks, suspected to be of Covid patients. As the water level rises and the sand banks crumble, the bodies are floating up. Cellphone videos and images shot by local journalists at different ghats in Prayagraj over the last two days showed the authorities fishing out the bodies.
A photograph taken on Wednesday showed a body stuck on the riverbank, a hand covered in white surgical glove jutting out of the saffron shroud. The body was pulled out by a team from the Prayagraj municipal corporation.
A video from another ghat showed two men recover another shroud-covered body from the river and placing it on the sand bank.
Multiple such visuals and ones showing the subsequent cremation, have been obtained by local journalists.
Niraj Kumar Singh, a zonal officer for the Prayagraj Municipal Corporation, told the media he had cremated 40 bodies in the last 24 hours. "We are cremating all bodies individually and following all rituals," Mr Singh said in an interview.
Asked about a body where an oxygen tube could be seen in the mouth of the dead person, Mr Singh admitted that it appeared the person was ill before death.
"You can see that the person was ill, and the family dumped the person here and went away. Maybe they were scared, I cannot say," Mr Singh said. Not all the bodies were decomposed. The condition of some indicated they were freshly buried, he added.
Prayagraj's Mayor Abhilasha Gupta Nandi, who was filmed helping with the cremations on the river banks, told the media that the state had a long tradition of burial by many communities.While bodies buried in the mud are dissolved the sandbanks tend to preserve them. "Wherever we find exposed bodies because of the spate in the river, we are carrying out cremations," he said.
Visuals of mass shallow graves in sand banks by the Ganga river in multiple locations in UP and Bihar had generated international headlines in May, coinciding with the devastating second wave of the Covid pandemic. Hundreds of bodies also washed up in eastern Uttar Pradesh and downstream in Bihar.
The visuals generated immense outrage. It was suspected that the deaths were due to Covid, and the fatalities were being under-reported by the state.
The Uttar Pradesh government denied that the deaths were linked to the pandemic and claimed that burial by the river is a long-standing tradition.
Through April and May, there were murmurs in the BJP against Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, with several leaders privately and publicly expressing concern about his handling of the Covid crisis. Some even wrote letters about the mishandling of the pandemic.